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Departmental Colloquium: Questions and model-free metacognition

Peter Carruthers
Wednesday, February 10, 2021, 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

There has been a flurry of recent work on the cognitive neuroscience of curiosity. But everyone in the field offers definitions of curiosity that are metacognitive in nature. Curiosity is said to be a desire for knowledge, or some such. This is problematic. It either makes it difficult to see how curiosity can properly be attributed to cats and rats (let alone birds and bees), or it commits us to attributing meta-representational capacities to these creatures for which we lack evidence. The goal of the talk is to offer a re-interpretation of the main findings in the literature, showing how it is possible for creatures to be curious while lacking any conception of their own or others’ minds. It suggests, first, that curiosity is an affective attitude toward a question, with simple first-order contents such as, what that is, where home is, and so on). But it also introduces a distinction between model-based and model-free forms of metacognition. The former depends on a simplified model or “theory” of one’s own mind; the latter does not. I suggest that curiosity and related attitudes that depend on detecting and responding adaptively to one’s own ignorance implicate only the model-free variety.